How do the indigenous cultures of the Northeast reckon with the ubiquity of death?Almost a decade ago, when Professor Ganesh Devy first thought of a gathering of indigenous peoples, scholars and activists, he decided to call it “chotro”. In the Bhili language group, chotro indicates a place where villagers gather, a public platform, a centre for dispute resolution, and a place for announcing news. Chotro would thus expand upon the pedagogic limitations of ‘conference’, and invite a polyphony of voices challenging exclusion from knowledge transactions. However, what happens when the voices are silenced—by the infliction force and violence and with the finality of death? Is not death beyond negotiation, or is it possible to envision a dialogue with death?
Death is that disintegrating force which marks every period of transition. The function of death here is not merely to reiterate the inevitable truth of life or its strange fatality. Does death then become a potent symbol of change, creativity and emergent aspects of social, cultural and political life? Or does it simply serve as a stark reminder of indifference, incomprehension and incommunicability between one human and another? How does one invoke the deafening silence of death?
In the wake of recent events in the country, I am haunted by death as it exists for indigenous communities from the Northeast. I take recourse to the idea of chotro again and would like to use this space as “a place for announcing news”—the news of death. It may read like a newspaper bulletin, but public memory is short. Death can be effortlessly forgotten and dismissed as statistical information. To relive death is not an oxymoron, but an insistence to fathom the deep recesses of lived experience which often bypasses the question of choice. Manipuri poet Robin Singh Ngangom writes,
First came the scream of the dying
in a bad dream, then the radio report
and a newspaper: six shot dead, twenty five
houses razed, sixteen beheaded with hands tied
behind their backs inside a church
As the days crumbled, and the victors
And their victims grew in number,
I hardened inside my thickening hide,
until I lost my tenuous humanity.
Does death then become a potent symbol of change, creativity and emergent aspects of social, cultural and political life? Or does it simply serve as a stark reminder of indifference, incomprehension and incommunicability between one human and another?
Death is integral to all aspects of identity in and for the Northeast, be it the insurgencies, the presence of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the violence inflicted by underground outfits on their own communities or racial discrimination meted out to students, professionals, migrant labourers and workers from the Northeast in so-called mainland India. The methods by which the living cope, remember or repress the memory of death perhaps provide crucial insights into the processes of collectivisation, deliberate terror, revolutionary violence and state violence and deprivation in the Northeast. “Reclaiming death” may therefore transform death as meaningful on personal and individual levels and underscore the urgency of facing the cause of dying and bereavement. Such reclamation may help recognise dissent and violence as significant factors in the construction of Northeast identity and direct attention to the interplay of death and memory.
Death is a ground reality for the Northeast—in fact and in fiction. A chronological survey of recent deaths and the depiction of death in the writings of the Northeast draws our attention to the materiality of experience, determined by gender, location, sexual preference, class and profession.
On the afternoon of 18 April 2012, Richard Loitam, a second-semester student of architecture in Bangalore was found dead in his hostel bed. Friends and family of the 19-year-old student alleged that he was brutally assaulted by his seniors the night before he died. His body showed bruises and contusions and photographs showed him bleeding from the head and the nose. Pathology reports ruled out homicide or culpable murder, with the college initially trying to dismiss the death with the allegation that Richard was a drug addict, though the post mortem did not show any evidence of the same. The death led widespread agitation in the country and drew attention to the ugly truth of racial profiling.
Death is integral to all aspects of identity in and for the Northeast, be it the insurgencies, the presence of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the violence inflicted by underground outfits on their own communities or racial discrimination meted out to students, professionals, migrant labourers and workers from the Northeast in so-called mainland India.
In the same year in August, 26-year-old IT professional Kahomdal Panmel was attacked from behind with rods by youths in motorbikes while he was walking home with his sister in Pune. The attack had witnesses who neither intervened nor called for help. As the crowd gathered, the assaulters left. In a period of 5 days, 12 people from different states of the Northeast were assaulted in Pune. In Mysore, a Tibetan student was stabbed by two people who believed him to be of Northeastern origin.
These unwarranted attacks on people from the Northeast had its roots in the ethnic clashes between Bodo and non-Bodo communities (constituting mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims) in Kokrajhar district of Assam. However, most attackers were oblivious of the ethnic warfare in Kokrajhar and targeted people from the Northeast as they were physically identifiable as “different”. The eruption of violence (which also led to an exodus of people from the Northeast out of the metro cities) once again divulged the complete lack of understanding of the communities from the Northeast and reiterated the marginalisation of the region.
The very next year, on 29 May 2013, AS Reingamphi from Choithar village in the Ukhrul district of Manipur was found dead in her rented accommodation at Chirag Delhi under Malviya Nagar Police Station in Delhi. Despite signs of brutal assaults on her nose, face and legs, the police refused to take action against her landlord and his brother-in-law, whom Reingamphi’s family felt were responsible for the death. It was only after three days of sustained pressure and the presence of hundreds of protestors that the police lodged an FIR under Section 306 (abetment to suicide), but still not under IPC 302 (murder) or 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder). The reports of the postmortem remained inconclusive while the police and the landlord claimed Reingamphi had committed suicide and that the injuries on her person were caused by rats. Her death is once again a reminder of the continuous violence inflicted on people from the Northeast, based on racism and sexism, both gross violations of human rights.
A chronological survey of recent deaths and the depiction of death in the writings of the Northeast draws our attention to the materiality of experience, determined by gender, location, sexual preference, class and profession.
In 2009, 19-year-old Ramchanphy Hongray from Manipur was sexually assaulted, strangled to death and burnt by a PhD student from a leading institute of engineering in her rented apartment in south Delhi, while in 2010, a young BPO employee from Mizoram was kidnapped near Dhaula Kuan in Delhi, gang raped and then dumped in an unconscious state.
On 29 January 2014, 20-year-old Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh was killed by shopkeepers with iron rods and sticks in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. The fact that he was the son of a sitting MP from Arunachal Pradesh—one of the only seven sister states not to have had an armed insurgency against the Indian state—and that it was an election year ensured the setting up of the Bezbaruah Committee. The Committee’s mandate was to listen to the concerns of people of the Northeast in different parts of the country, especially in metro cities.
So where do we go from here? The deaths point an accusing finger to a system which persistently trivializes the power-knowledge-representation nexus. Such a system insists that indigenous people are objects of change and not agents of change. How does one locate the marginalised in this nexus? Is life in the hills then any different from that in the plains?
The deaths point an accusing finger to a system which persistently trivializes the power-knowledge-representation nexus. Such a system insists that indigenous people are objects of change and not agents of change.
On 28 May 2014, Witson M Sangma, a suspected Garo National Liberation Army worker, died in police custody in Chokpot in the South Garo Hills, which led to outrage among the locals. On the evening of 3 June 2014, Rongseng Sangma, his wife and their four minor children had just finished supper in the remote village of Goera Rangpat in the Garo Hills. Five armed GNLF men stormed into their hut, locked Rongseng inside the hut and dragged his wife outside, claiming that she was a police informer. In front of her children, she was molested and raped and when she resisted, they pumped bullets into her face. The police later pulled six bullets from her face, which was blown off.
The Naga writer and poet Temsula Ao tells the gruesome story of Apenyo and her mother in the short story ‘The Last Song’. The young, beautiful singer Apenyo and her mother are brutally raped and killed by a young army captain and his men inside a church, which is razed to the ground. AFSPA was first imposed in 1958 in Nagaland as an emergency law that was supposed to be for a year. Almost six decades later, it remains effective not only in the Naga Hills but also in other “disturbed areas” across the Northeast. Temsula’s story ‘Shadow’ recounts the killing of the young and innocent boy Imli by the underground commander Hoito because he hates Imli being forced into the group. For Ao, both the Indian army and the underground outfits have been a source of terror and ruthlessness for the people of the hills.
James Dokhuma (1932–2007), a prolific writer and erstwhile member of the Mizo National Front records the sufferings of the common man in his novella Silaimu Ngaihawm (Beloved Bullet), set in the backdrop of the controversial enforced village groupings, one of the most drastic of military actions deployed to suppress secessionists. Officially known as “Protected and Progressive Village”, Dokhuma refers to it as “Public Punishment Village”. The book narrates the following orders from the Commissioner at Silchar:
All villages lying between Vairengte and Zobawk near Lunglei, situated within ten miles from the main road on both sides, will migrate to specified villages between January 1st and 10th. All deserted villages will be burnt after January 10th, except for the churches and graveyards.
The spectacle of memory has always been benumbing. Temsula Ao asks what one is to do “when that memory is of pain and pain alone”—a memory that is not of the distant past, but continues to linger and persist in the present.
The horrifying military action and the fear of being known as informers by the underground army narrate an enduring history of trauma and death.
The spectacle of memory has always been benumbing. Temsula Ao asks what one is to do “when that memory is of pain and pain alone”—a memory that is not of the distant past, but continues to linger and persist in the present. Grieving over death is not a seamless trajectory from anger to bitterness and to acceptance or closure. Stories from the Northeast—fact and fiction—critique identity enmeshed in a longstanding culture of violence and oppression. The stories perhaps provide a space for grieving and giving, foregrounding the outrage of death and loss in ‘Play of Absurd’:
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go…
How does one commemorate death? To celebrate it would be a travesty of the realities of survival for indigenous communities in the Northeast. Perhaps we should give a moment to speculate on what these deaths tell us about our contemporary attitudes towards death and the legacy of violence in indigenous history. How does death shape democratic expression on the banks of the Luit? One needs to go back to the bard of the Luit:
Burha luit tumi
Burha luit buwa kiyo?